Police Don’t Kill People. Guns Do.
by Benjamin Studebaker
I’ve been doing some more thinking about the recent cases in which American police officers shoot and kill people (e.g. Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, etc.). It has occurred to me that there are two important angles to the national debate we’re having, but I’ve only really talked about one of those angles on this blog. They are:
- The Race Angle–why do American police officers disproportionately shoot more black people than white people, even when you adjust for poverty and crime rates?
- The Civil Liberty Angle–why do American police officers shoot more people per capita than police officers in other developed countries?
In late November, I offered a view on the race angle, but what about the civil liberty angle? What is it about America that causes American police officers to behave differently from police officers from other similarly developed societies? Let’s investigate.
First, it’s important to establish that our question’s premise is grounded in fact, that American police officers do indeed shoot more people per capita than police officers in similarly developed societies. There is enough data out there to establish that this is indeed the case. According to the FBI, roughly 400 justifiable homicides are committed by US police officers each year. FiveThirtyEight puts the figure much higher, at closer to 1,000. This is a large range, but regardless of which figure we take to be accurate, there can be no doubt that American police are more lethal. The Economist reports that in 2013, British police fired their weapons only 3 times, with 0 fatalities. Statistically, a British person is 100 times less likely to be shot by a police officer than an American person is. Other developed countries have similarly low figures. German police only killed 6 German citizens in 2011. Canada averages about a dozen fatalities. Japanese police killed only one person in the past six years. Even when we adjust for differences in population size and use the FBI figures, there is no comparison. All of these other countries are in a completely different world from the United States on this issue:
Canada’s rate is about 25% of the United States’, and the rest barely register. To put it another way, the United States accounts for 96% of the police shootings in these 5 countries despite only accounting for 51% of the population. So there’s no denying that there is a big difference between the United States and the rest of the pack.
What accounts for that difference? A lot of people in the United States are quick to accuse US police of having a violent culture, of possessing the attitude of an occupying power, arguing that we can train or educate police to see the public in a different light. But even if we assume that US police do have this sort of attitude, it still leaves open the question of why American police would have an attitude that is completely different from the attitude of police in other countries of similar prosperity. How did American police officers acquire this attitude in the first place, and why did they acquire it while police officers in other countries did not? When we evaluate human behavior, it’s important to remember that the culture or attitude of individuals or groups is almost always a symptom of some larger structural problem. Just as white people have a tendency to unfairly blame racial inequality on black culture rather than on systemic inequalities, police reformers have a tendency to blame police culture for police behavior rather than looking for deeper causes.
What would cause a reasonable police officer to shoot a civilian? I hypothesize that fear and capacity are the primary causes–police shoot civilians because they have reason to believe that if they do not, they will be harmed themselves, and because they have the weapons and can do so. So to the extent that American police officers shoot civilians more often than British, Canadian, German, or Japanese officers, it is because American police are more afraid of US citizens than police in those other countries are of their respective civilian populations and because they are better armed. If this were merely a matter of police officers’ beliefs and culture, we would expect there to be no substantive empirical evidence justifying this heightened level of fear. But it turns out that American police officers are much, much more likely to be killed by civilians than their international counterparts. Over the past decade, an average of 150 police officers are killed in the United States every year. By contrast, Britain averages about 10. Canada averages a half dozen or so. Adjusted for population, the difference is striking:
An American police officer is roughly 3 times more likely to die in the line of duty than a British police officer. There is some noise in these figures, because police fatality statistics include not merely officers who are killed in homicides, but also those officers who die in accidents or suffer heart attacks on duty. When we look only at homicides at the hands of civilians, the figures tell an even stronger tale:
While a mere 11% of British police fatalities are the result of civilian violence, a full 39% of American police fatalities happen this way, and most of those violent deaths are shootings. So it’s safe to say that American police not only fear the civilian population more than other police do for cultural reasons, but because they have legitimate grounds for their fear–they are roughly 10 times more likely to be fatally assaulted by the people they serve.
If we want our police officers to shoot less at us, we’ve got to shoot less at them. Training and education can only do so much otherwise. It doesn’t help that American police officers are also far better armed than their international counterparts, making it much easier for them to kill civilians when they are afraid. In the United States, nearly all police officers carry firearms, while in Britain, only about 5% of the force does. But as long as US police officers have legitimate reason to be afraid, they are unlikely to give up their weapons.
Why do Americans shoot at their police officers so much more than other citizens do? To answer this question, we need to understand why civilians shoot at the police in the first place. Once again, it’s not enough to say that cultures differ, our task is to discover why they differ.
What would cause a reasonable civilian to take a shot at a police officer? Being arrested for a serious crime is a frightening experience. Civilians do not want to go to prison and will sometimes go to great lengths to avoid this. If guns are widely available, they may attempt to use these weapons to resist arrest and avoid going to prison. Even if only a very small portion of the civilian populace is prepared to attack a police officer, that subsection of the population ruins the fun for everyone, because when a police officer stops or arrests someone, he can never be sure whether or not the individual in question is armed and potentially dangerous. This keeps the police in a state of anxiety, making them trigger happy and resulting in the elevated death rate we talked about at the top of this piece.
Let’s test this theory. Are guns much more widely available in the United States than they are elsewhere? The answer is yes:
Even if we turned our prisons into reasonable comfortable places, we’re never going to eliminate the fear and anxiety citizens feel when they are arrested. The best we can do is prevent fearful citizens from making the terrible mistake of attempting to resist arrest with a firearm by denying citizens access to firearms. Once we’ve done that, the police will have less reason to fear the civilian population. They will become less trigger happy, and eventually we might even be able to disarm them as well. When everyone can reasonably expect everyone else to be unarmed, there is less reason for fear and consequently less reason for violence.
But wait, I almost forgot something–we’re talking about the United States of America here. Many Americans love the right to bear arms, which is explicitly stated in the US constitution’s 2nd Amendment. Whenever I write about gun issues, I get a lot of comments from American readers who find this kind of policy totalitarian and unacceptable, even though it is common practice in most free societies. In practice, American voters are not going to agree to do this. And that’s too bad, because this means that the best we can hope for is that police shootings become racially equitable. We cannot reasonably hope to see an overall decline, even with body cameras and new training regimens. As long as the police have reason to fear that the civilians they’re stopping and arresting could be armed and dangerous, they will act out of fear, and sometimes that means that both officers and civilians will be unnecessarily harmed and killed.
But just for the fun of it, here are a variety of common counterarguments to this one and explanations for why they fail:
“Guns Don’t Kill People. People kill People.”
This argument alleges that if we take away guns, people will kill each other by other means. This is demonstrably false–homicide rates are strongly correlate with the number of guns per capita:
For the most part, people don’t kill people–unless you give them guns.
“We Need Guns to Stop a Totalitarian Regime From Taking Over.”
The United States has many more guns per capita than many free societies, including all of the countries in the above chart. Many of these countries have not been totalitarian or even authoritarian for several centuries (e.g. all the Anglo-Saxon countries), and the totalitarian regimes that have emerged have historically done so with widespread popular support such that guns in the hands of the minority willing to oppose the regime would not have made a substantive difference to the outcome anyway (e.g. Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, etc.).
“I Have the Right to Self-Defense.”
The United States has a murder rate that is almost 5 times higher than any of the other countries in the chart above (aside from Canada), and experiences far more police officer deaths and civilian fatalities at the hands of police. The social danger created by guns vastly outweighs any security benefits they confer upon the user. If we really want to defend ourselves, the best way is to disarm everybody.
“The State Cannot Effectively Enforce Gun Control Laws–Only Law Abiding Citizens Will Give Up Their Guns, the Criminals Will Still Have Them.”
As we can see from the various statistics I have offered above, countries with far lower rates of gun ownership have managed to reduce their murder rates, as well as the incidence of police fatalities and civilian deaths at the hands of police. Even Canada, a large country that shares an extensive land border with the United States, has managed to do these things. This suggests that the enforcement difficulties are overstated and surmountable, if we are willing to try.
“Gun Control Hasn’t Worked in the United States at the State or Local Levels.”
This is true, but this is only because the government does not control the borders between US states, counties, and municipalities. This allows guns to easily be smuggled from regions where gun laws are lax to regions where gun laws are strict. If gun laws are made strict across the country via federal law, this smuggling will no longer be possible.
“There is More Violent Crime in the UK than in the United States.”
This claim, often made, was debunked by PolitiFact. The UK and United States have very different legal definitions of what constitutes a “violent crime,” skewing the figures, as well as varying levels of trust in the police, causing crimes to be reported at varying rates among different communities. In the US, for instance, many more people claim to have been the victims of violent crimes in surveys than report such crimes to the police. As a result, it’s very difficult to compare overall rates of violent crime among different countries. When we look at violent crimes for which both countries have similar legal definitions and report rates (like homicide), the results are in line with my data.
The only reason we can’t drastically reduce the incidence of homicide, police fatalities, and civilian deaths at the hands of police in the United States is that the American voting public is in denial about the efficacy and desirability of gun control policies. Too many Americans believe that their right to have guns is more important than their right to be protected from violence and murder. There is no argument that justifies this position. It is one of sentiment and as long as it remains implacable, many more people–both police officers and civilians–are going to needlessly perish.